James Shapiro | Courtesy of UofL
James Shapiro | Courtesy of UofL

This week’s addition to the ongoing party for Shakespeare fans during the “Will in the Ville” celebration is a visit from James Shapiro, who’ll be speaking at the Louisville Free Public Library on Thursday, Nov. 17. Shapiro is a professor at Columbia University and has published several books about Shakespeare, including his most recent, “The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606.”

Insider spoke with Shapiro and nerderd out about our favorite Shakespeare things, including the recent bombshell (well, for Shakespeare fans) dropped by Oxford University that claims to have proof that Christopher Marlowe co-wrote some of Shakespeare’s plays. Their proof comes in the form of computer data analysis.

The lecture is part of Will in the Ville.
The lecture is part of Will in the Ville.

Shapiro, with his mild manner and eloquent speech, says the jury is still out on Oxford’s claims.

“The problem is that they’ve not yet made available any of that data,” he says. ‘I’m pretty good at sifting through these sorts of documents and looking at the kinds of assumptions that shape the research. And computers get results, but only to the way questions are put to them.”

He does, however, concede that Shakespeare likely had help, a subject Shapiro investigated in his book “Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?

“So do I think Elizabethan drama was a deeply collaborative enterprise? Yes. Do I think early and late Shakespeare co-authored plays with other writers? That is unquestioned,” says Shapiro.

The Oxford findings come in advance of its new edition of Shakespeare’s complete works, and Shapiro thinks the announcement smells more of sale techniques than scholarship.

“I think it’s part of the problem when you spend years and years and invest hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in a new edition of Shakespeare,” says Shapiro. “You have to come out with some splashy claims. So I think a lot of that will be walked back or questioned by the scholarly community when we actually get our hands on the evidence.”

While the claims that Marlowe was a co-author has grabbed the most headlines, Shapiro, who received an advanced copy of the new edition, says there is another bombshell awaiting readers. “This new edition … pretty radically re-orders the ways Shakespeare’s plays were written.”

The order of the plays, like many details of Shakespeare’s life and even the aforementioned questions of authorship, have been questioned and argued over for hundreds of years.

In addition to writing about Shakespeare, Shapiro lectures about the Bard and reaches a wide variety of audiences. “I go into prisons in New York City, I’ve worked with fourth graders on occasion, I’ll deal with academic audiences,” he says. His Louisville stop has him focusing on Shakespeare in America, the subject of another one of his many books.

While Shapiro seems committed to spreading Shakespeare to everyone, he takes a dim view of the actions of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which made news last year with an announcement it was commissioning “translations” of all of Shakespeare’s plays.

“It’s a mistake,” says Shapiro. “Some really good writers, including Ted Hughes, have made a go at trying to modernize Shakespeare, and it doesn’t work.”

One of Shapiro's numerous books on Shakespeare
One of Shapiro’s numerous books on Shakespeare

He suggested instead that Shakespeare companies should just make sure the actors and directors understand the language, a feat he believes anyone can accomplish.

“How do I know this? Because I work as an advisor to the Public Theatre in New York, and they, the last five years, have been going … into prisons. Rikers (Island), federal prisons, the ‘Orange is the New Black‘ women’s prison just outside New York City. And the language is 100 percent Shakespeare,” he says, adding that the audiences in lock down do just fine with the language. “You can’t tell me audiences at Rikers can get it, and audiences in Oregon can’t.”

Insider peppered Shapiro with questions about all the recent Shakespeare news and controversies, but he didn’t mind.

“They’re my favorite Shakespeare controversies, too, because behind each one of them is a bigger and more interesting story,” he says.

He also spoke on the exhibit that’s visiting Louisville, one of the few remaining original copies of the first folio — the first time Shakespeare’s plays were printed — and the reason for Louisville’s autumnal Shakespeare celebration.

“We live in a day and age when most of the information we now get is through laptops or handheld devices, and it’s easy to forget how important books are and how, in this case, charismatic and extraordinary a book published almost 400 years ago is,” he says.

You can hear more of Shapiro’s thoughts on Thursday, Nov. 17, when the University of Louisville brings him to the Main Branch of the Louisville Free Public Library. He speaks at 7 p.m., and tickets are free, but you should reserve your spot by calling 574-1644.

Eli Keel
Eli Keel is “pretty much” a Louisville native. You may have seen him around town reading poetry, short stories, dancing or acting. He’s a passionate locavore, so you may have also seen him stuffing his face at one of Louisville’s amazing restaurants. When he isn’t too busy writing short stories, he blogs at amanwalksintoablog.wordpress.com.